The night staff of the New York Star are sitting around playing cards when young reporter Johnny arrives, badly hungover. Johnny is a married man but he’s been playing around and he’s been boozing. The night editor starts to tell a story, a story that will have particular relevance to Johnny. It’s the story of Tony Cochrane, a good cop gone bad. As the night editor says, a man makes one mistake and a mountain falls on him. And a mountain certainly fell on Tony Cochrane. Tony’s story is told in a flashback that occupies most of the movie.
It was back in the days of Prohibition. Tony (William Gargan) is a homicide cop. He is married, with a nice wife and a nice kid. But he’s fooling around with a married woman. He knows it’s wrong and he hates himself, and he knows that Jill Merrill (Janis Carter) is no good. She is more than no good. As Tony tells her, “You’re worse than blood poisoning. You're rotten through and through. Like something they serve at the Ritz, only it’s been laying out in the sun too long...You’re a sickness.” Tony tries to tell her it’s all over but Jill’s not buying it. She knows he’s helpless. She has him hooked.
Tony and Jill are packed in a nice quiet secluded little spot while they’re having this conversation when suddenly a convertible pulls up nearby. The convertible is driven by a woman and there’s a male passenger. Then the male passenger starts beating the woman viciously with a tyre iron. The assailant runs off and Tony gives chase. Tony has the guy lined up in his sights ready to plug him when Jill tells him not to do it. If he shoots the guy their affair will become public. Tony will lose his job (since he’s been canoodling with Jill when he’s supposed to be working) and he will lose his wife and son. Tony hesitates, then lowers his gun. The assailant escapes. Tony and Jill drive and Tony doesn’t report the matter. Of course the next morning the body of the woman is found.
Tony knows this is all going to be awkward when the investigation gets under way. The woman in the convertible is dead, and she’s not just any woman. She’s Elaine Blanchard, the daughter of a very big wheel. This is going to be a major murder case, top priority. When Tony and the rest of the Homicide Squad arrive next morning Tony realises just how awkward things are going to be. There are two very distinct sets of tyre tracks, and one of them (made of course by Tony’s car) is going to be easy to identify because there’s a cut on the tyre.
Tony’s nightmare has just begun. It gets even worse when it turns out that Jill Merrill knew the murdered woman and that she knows a lot more than she’s telling him. It gets worse still when an arrest is made. Tony is in an impossible situation. He thinks he sees a way out, but then the ground opens up beneath his feet and he is falling deep, deep into the noir nightmare world.
This is classic film noir. Tony is basically a decent guy. If he hadn’t listened to Jill and he’d shot the murderer things would have been unpleasant for him but he might still have had a chance to put things right with his family and he might even have been able to keep his job. He’d have been rapped over the knuckles, but probably nothing worse. But he did listen to Jill and now he’s the typical noir protagonist, trapped like a fly in a spider’s web.
And Jill Merrill is some spider. She’s not just your average femme fatale. She’s the femme fatale to end all femmes fatales. She has no redeeming qualities, she’s simply evil through and through. Janis Carter does a fine job in the role, bringing out the viciousness in Jill but still making us understand why she has such a hold over Tony. William Gargan makes a good noir protagonist, playing Tony as a mixture of strengths and weaknesses.
During his lengthy career Henry Levin directed a lot of movies and it’s difficult to find fault with the job he does here. Harold Jacob Smith provides a very noirish screenplay laced with some choice hardboiled dialogue. The film was based on a radio series of the same name. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey was responsible for lensing many fine movies in this genre and he provides the necessary atmosphere in abundance.
This movie is one of four in Columbia’s Bad Girls of Film Noir Volume 2 boxed set. The transfer is excellent and the extras on disc one include an episode of a television series from the same era. I haven’t watched it yet but its inclusion suggests it may have some noirish elements.
With Janis Carter’s bravura performance as the queen of the spider women and a general atmosphere of sleaze, guilt and sin Night Editor is a splendid little B film noir and is highly recommended.